Being paid to commentate on West Bromwich Albion matches in the company of the club’s legendary goalscorer, Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown – as Rob Gurney of BBC WM 95.6 will be doing at The Amex for the FA Cup fourth round tie - sounds like the dream job for any follower of The Baggies.
But although Rob has developed a soft spot for the other Albion, he is a lifelong fan of another West Midlands club. And he thinks that a little distance can be healthy when working in the media.
“I’m a Coventry City supporter born and bred, and used to follow them professionally for Coventry and Warwickshire Radio as well as personally, but I got too close to them,” he said. “It coincided with Coventry’s relegation from the Premier League and I was being accused by the club of whipping up fans against them and at the same time accused by the fans of being in the club’s pocket.
“If both sides were having a go, I was probably doing the right thing and playing straight down the middle! But then I came to WM and have been here since the early noughties, specifically Albion for the last four or five seasons.”
West Brom looked like an established Premier League club at the time, so last season’s relegation came as a surprise to many outside The Hawthorns, especially with renowned firefighter Tony Pulis at the helm.
They arrived at the Amex on 9th September 2017 with two wins and a draw from their three league games. But the Seagulls claimed their first Premier League victory and Pulis did not win another game with the Baggies. From his commentary position, Rob had spotted signs that things were going wrong before then.
“Middlesbrough fans are finding out now that the Pulis situation is very divisive with the sort of football he plays, and that was where it all went belly-up with Albion fans,” he said. “It had been coming. The atmosphere at home games, a bit like it is at Middlesbrough now apparently, was very poor, almost funereal.
“There wasn’t any great agitation until right towards the end, when they lost 4-0 at home to Chelsea in his last game. But the away fans had started to turn on him as well with some chanting about his football.
“It was okay while they were winning, but his two full seasons in charge both ended in nine-game winless runs. He notoriously flogs the players to death, so they got to 40 points and then psychologically switched off. In his last full season, they reached 40 points in February, with 12 games to go, and they only got another five points over the rest of the season.”
Pulis was sacked on 20th November with the club a point above the bottom three. But his replacement only made their situation worse. “The mistake they made was giving it to Alan Pardew, who won only one game, against Brighton with the backdrop of the Bong-Rodriguez racism row.
“And there was ‘taxigate,’ with four senior players allegedly nicking a taxi on a break to Barcelona. The season quickly disintegrated, and they were conceding late goals left, right and centre.”
Finally, the club parted company with Pardew and turned to their former defender, Darren Moore, who had been part of Pardew’s staff, as caretaker. Suddenly the team came alive, and Moore even won the April manager of the month award.
“Obviously the big question is what might have happened if they had appointed Darren Moore two or three weeks earlier – would they still be in the Premier League?” Rob says.
“Moore almost love-bombed the players in training and made them feel good about themselves, which is apparently the opposite of what had happened before, and that got a reaction.
“Bearing in mind where they had been, to take the fight against relegation into the last week of the season was a massive achievement – winning at Old Trafford and St James’ Park, beating Spurs with an injury-time goal. There was an amazing atmosphere at The Hawthorns that day.”
The decision to give Moore the permanent job in May was a popular one, even though he was still largely an unknown quantity as a head coach. “I don’t think anyone had seen that [revival] coming. He had worked very well with the young players, but working with senior players with no previous coaching experience at that level was a different proposition.
“They interviewed Darren and Dean Smith of Brentford, who is now at Villa. Because of the run of results he had had, there was a clamour for him to be given it. He’d certainly earned his chance to have a crack at it full time and if it had gone to anyone else it would have sent out the wrong signals for all sorts of reasons – a BAME coach not getting the job and only six months after the death of Cyrille Regis.
“He has taken it on very well. [Former Wigan, Everton and Belgium assistant manager] Graeme Jones coming in as his number two has been a big influence. They experimented with a back three but oppositions wised up, so after they lost at Hull in November, when Hull weren’t the team they are now, they changed it to 4-3-3 for a game at home to Leeds and blew them away 4-1. It was quite a significant tactical shift, but it has reaped dividends.”
“Dwight Gayle is one of those players who is too good for the Championship, but hasn’t quite cut it in the Premier League. He did it at Newcastle and has looked tremendous at Albion. He’s always on the shoulder of the last defender and has got 14 goals.
“Harvey Barnes going back to Leicester after his loan could be tricky, maybe the difference between a top-six and a top-two finish. He contributed nine goals and six assists. He was playing on the left of the front three but Gayle played there against Norwich and scored.
“But the attacking play has masked the fact that they concede too many goals.
"They’ve only kept four clean sheets in the league all season.”
West Brom arrive at the Amex in third place in the Championship after Monday’s 2-0 win at Bolton, so is Moore likely to rest players with promotion the main aim?
“He made nine changes for the Wigan game in the third round,” Rob says. “Away to a Premier League club I think it might be different, but it’s fair to assume he’ll rest some.”
So who should we look out for? “A guy called Rekeem Harper who plays in midfield,” Rob says. “He played against Wigan and was outstanding and has kept his place. He’s 19 in March. He started as a striker in the youth team but the academy manager, Mark Harrison, saw something of Patrick Vieira in him and if he plays on Saturday you’ll see why.”